© Yaron Matras

Romani - the language of the 'Gypsies' - is a language of Indian origin, spoken in Europe (as well as North and South America and Australia) by a population of several million people. Click here for more information on the language. The following two conversations were recorded in Germany in 1990. The speakers belong to the Lovara and Kelderaš groups, who speak very closely related dialects of Romani, which originated in the regions around Transylvania. The ancestors of the speakers migrated to central Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, and are now dispersed in various locations in central and western Europe as well as in America. During the conversation, in Romani, the speakers sometimes switch into German, the main language used outside the family (German insertions are italicised):

Example 1 [Listen to example]

a Amende akana te merel varekon, naj konik kothe bešel amensa.
b Amen korkore si te bešas, ke naj konik.
c Var/
d Feri e familja.
e Feri e familja si.
f Hm.
g Aj varekana kana merelas varekon anda kaver foruri avenas, ta kidilas pe po šela Rom.
h Taj bešenas kodole njamonsa kodola trin račja, te les/ te nas/ vorbinas lenca, te len le tele pa gindo pa kodo hacares sa.
i E familja či trobulas te del pe gindo sar te praxov les si te žav kudka te kerav kuko formularo kothe.
j Ja, mhm, mhm.
k Kodo nas la familjako bajo, kodo či kerelas e familja, kodo e sterine Rom kerenas.
l Aj akana, obwohl kadka meres ke muljas tuke varekon, hačares, du bist total fertig, tu si te žas inke te des tu gindo kaj te praxov les, kudka si te žav, Bestattungsinstitut, ehm/ pa/ pa/ pa Meldeamt, eh Geb/ Sterbeurkunde,
m Mhm.
n Hačares, es ist weg.
o Beispiel akana feri phendem tuke, hačares.
p Mm.
q Es sind so alles, alles verschiedene Sachen.
r Kaj trobul tu kaver manuš, čiro manuš, kaj hačarel tu, kaj vi vov sa kade hačarel sar tu, naj, ist weg.
s Ke vi amari doš si, wir haben uns isoliert...
t Mm.
u ... katar e kaver Rom.
v Ame bešas ando Hamburg.
w Ame naj ame kontakto kavre Romensa ke naj ame vrama akana.
x Dikh o ( ): Me či dikhav les kurkensa, šonensa manchmal.
y Er hat seine Sache zu tun, ich hab meine Sache zu tun.
z Miro phral pale, mure dad mure phralen či dikhav po duj-trin kurke.
aa Und das find ich das ist krank.

Example 1 Translation

a Among us now when somebody dies, there is nobody who mourns with us.
b We have to mourn alone, because there is nobody.
c Some/
d Only the family.
e There's only the family.
f Hm.
g Und sometime ago, when somebody died they came from other towns and hundreds of Roma got together.
h And they sat with those relatives those three nights, to take/ so that they won't/ the talked to them in order to get their minds off of it all, you understand.
i The family didn't have to think about how should I bury him, I have to go there, I have to fill in this form there.
j Yes, mhm, mhm.
k It wasn't the family's problem, the family didn't have to do it, the strangers did it.
l And now, although you're dying here because one of your folks died, you understand, you're totally devastated, you still have to go and think about where should I bury him, I have to go there, funeral home, ehm/ to/ to/ to the registration office, eh birth/ death certificate,
m Mhm.
n You understand, it's gone.
o I just gave you an example, you understand.
p Mm.
q It's all, all these different things.
r When you need another person, your own person, who understands you, who understands everything just like you, there isn't one, it's gone.
s It's our own fault too, we've isolated ourselves...
t Mm.
u ... from the other Roma.
v We live in Hamburg.
w We don't have any contact to the other Roma, because we don't have time now.
x Look at ( ): I don't see him for weeks, for months sometimes.
y He has his things to do, I have my things to do.
z My brother too, my father, my brothers, I don't see them for two-three weeks.
aa And I find this is sick.

Many different functions are covered by codeswitches into German:

  • Grammatical loans: Speakers of minority languages often adopt grammatical particles such as discourse markers, interjections, and conjunctions from the dominant language. Especially prone to such adoption are words expressing contrast. In line l. the speaker uses the German concessive-contrastive marker obwohl 'although'.
  • Paraphrases and reiteration: These are often used to repeat a point that has just been made in the first language, often adding a special nuance, by employing an idiomatic expression (i.e. one that exists in German and is appropriate for capturing the content intended, but is difficult to translate): Thus, in line l. the speaker says du bist total fertig 'you are totally devastated'; and in lines n. and r. she uses the phrase ist weg 'it's gone' to summarise a point that has just been made.
  • Names of institutions: These are treated in a way like proper names, which cannot be translated. Since transactions in and with public institutions and formal matters are usually negotiated in German, it is convenient to replicate the German terminology: See in line l. the speaker's reference to 'funeral home', 'registration office', and 'death certificate'.
  • Side-comments, explanations and evaluations: Here, too, codeswitching has conversational functions, as it helps structure the narrative. Often a summary of ideas that have been presented earlier is highlighted through the switch to German, as in line q. , 'It's all, all these different things', and in line aa., 'And I find this is sick'. In lines s. and y. the switch emphasises an explanation for the statement that has just been made: 'we've isolated ourselves', and 'He has his things to do, I have my things to do'.
  • Other switches: Switches are generally difficult to predict. Sometimes, individual words are inserted in German, although there might have been a Romani alternative. Nonetheless, switching can hardly be regarded as absolutely arbitrary, and usually it serves some kind of conversational purpose, or has its roots in the particular conditions under which the speaker is processing his/her ideas and putting them into words; in other words, switching reflects to some degree the speaker's world of associations with real events and circumstances. Consider line o., where the word 'example' is used in German. An 'example' is an analytical tool delivered via language. The speaker's language of professional life and education, and her formal language, is German, and the switch to German here reflects the dominance of that language in such domains.
    By contrast, in line x. the expression 'sometimes' appears in German. We can regard this as a grammatical, rather than a lexical switch. A lexical item, as in the case of 'example', represents a well-defined concept or object. The grammatical function of a word, by contrast, is the role that it has in processing other elements of talk. The word 'sometimes' is an indefinite pronoun (like 'somebody', 'somewhere', and so on). Indefinite pronouns are quite often subject to borrowing between languages, especially from a dominant language into a minority language. The reasons for this are difficult to explicate here; but we can say that indefinites contain an element of insecurity, in other words, the speaker is unable to take responsibility for the precise specification of, in this case, the times in which the event occurs, and leaves this aspect open to the imagination of the hearer. There is, in turn, a connection between 'reaching out to the hearer' and switching languages. (For more on this topic see: Matras, Y. 2000. Fusion and the cognitive basis for bilingual discourse markers. International Journal of Bilingualism. 4:4. 505-528.; and Matras, Y. 1998. Utterance modifiers and universals of grammatical borrowing. Linguistics 36-2, 281-331.)

Here is another example:

Example 2 [Listen to example]

a. Taj či žanav, varesar areslas ando phanglipe, phandadi sas.
b. But berš bešlas,
c. ta jekh džes angla kodo kana sas te mekhen la avri,
d. voj či žanelas kodo,
e. kamelas te kerel varesar te šaj žal ande špital, žanes, te šaj len la te ingren la ande špital.
f. Numa voj či žanelas ke voj po kaver džes avri žal.
g. Ta las jekh roj, und das stimmt, ekh roj las, roj, Löffel, las ekh roj, aj kamelas te phagel pesko dand.
h. Ta sar zumadas kodo nakhadas e roj, aj mulas.
i. Das war Tragödie.
j. Ale či žanelas, po kaver džes war sie frei.
k. Mhm...gibt's 'n paar Sachen.

Example 2 Translation

a. And I don't know, somehow she ended up in jail, she was locked up.
b. She sat for many years,
c. and one day before she was supposed to be released,
d. she didn't know it,
e. she somehow wanted to do something so that she could go to the hospital, you know, so that they would take her and bring her to the hospital.
f. But she didn't know that she was coming out the next day.
g. And she took a spoon, and it's true, she took a spoon, spoon, spoon, she took a spoon, and she wanted to pull out her tooth.
h. And as she tried to do it, the spoon slipped, and she died.
i. It was a tragedy.
j. But she didn't know, the next day she was free.
k. Mhm...there are certain things.

Let us look at the conversation functions of the switches in this examples:

  • Side comments: The speaker emphasises the truth of what she is narrating, directing her comment at the listener, and departing from the main story line, at the point in which the story reaches its climax, in line g. This is accompanied by a switch into German: 'And this is true'.
  • Paraphrase and reiteration: In line g. the speaker repeats the word 'spoon' several times. This is the key to understanding the tragic fate of the character in the story, and is given prominent exposure through, at first, repetition, then through repetition in the second language, for further emphasis. In line j. the speaker reiterates the nature of the tragedy, the juxtaposition between the desperate action of the woman, and the fact that unknown to her she was about to be released. The contrast is depicted by the contrast of languages, with the key to the tragic aspect of the contrast - 'she would have been free' - presented in German.
  • Summary and evaluation: In line i. the speaker presents a summary of the point made in the story, in German: 'It was a tragedy'. This is set apart from the story itself, and serves as a means to establish a consensus with the listener in respect of a common evaluation and assessment of the events depicted in the story. In line k., the evaluation draws on a German idiomatic expression: 'there are certain things', essentially meaning 'such is life'. Here it is not the content of the story itself (i.e. not the individual events) that is being assessed and commented on, but rather the entire act of narration, and the fact that it represents an aspect of what the speaker knows about life and the events it brings with it.